Road to Ruin

Kate Sutton on Daniel Arsham at the Fabric Workshop and Museum

Left: Choreographer Jonah Bokaer and artist Daniel Arsham. Right: The facade of the Fabric Workshop and Museum. (Except where noted, all photos: Kate Sutton)

PHILADELPHIA’S STORIED FABRIC WORKSHOP AND MUSEUM was originally conceived by philanthropist Marion “Kippy” Boulton Stroud as a way to entice artists to incorporate textiles into their practice. Over its extensive history—“thirty-five years, one way or another,” if you ask Kippy—the program has hosted five hundred–plus artists-in-residence, from Mike Kelley, Ed Ruscha, and Felix Gonzales-Torres to Laura Owens, Shahzia Sikander, and Ryan Trecartin. More than just relocating the artists physically, the program moves them out of the comfort zone of their chosen medium, encouraging experimentation with new (for them at least) techniques or materials.

It’s not easy, though, to jar an artist like Daniel Arsham, who has proved fluent in a wide range of genres, including architecture (his Brooklyn-based studio Snarkitecture was commissioned to do the entrance for this year’s Design Miami), stage design, installation, sculpture, and fashion. “Of all the projects I’ve done with Daniel, my favorite still remains the tuxedo for his wedding. It was fantastic!” designer Richard Chai recalled with a grin last Friday at the Fabric Workshop’s space on Arch Street, where we had gathered to celebrate the opening of Arsham’s solo exhibition “Reach Ruin.”

The occasion doubled as the premiere of “Study for Occupant,” the latest in a series of collaborations with the dancer and choreographer Jonah Bokaer, who first started working with Arsham when the artist was designing sets for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The billing seemed a perfect complement to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibition “Dancing around the Bride,” which considers Marcel Duchamps’s influence on Cunningham, John Cage, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. A troupe of former Cunningham dancers had performed one of the revered choreographer’s Events in the museum that very afternoon, but Bokaer was quick to distinguish a separate genesis for Occupant: “Daniel and I met through Merce, so most people immediately look at the work through that lens. But I think you’ll see, the piece is really more in the spirit of Robert Wilson—which is to say, pretty much the complete opposite of what Cunningham was trying to do.”

Left: Dealer Rafael Gatel and designer Richard Chai. Right: Daniel Arsham, art historian John Richardson, and Timothy Stanley.

As we waited for the performance to begin, my New York crew followed the advice of a native Philadelphian, ducking next door to the Reading Street Market, where the vendors were mostly Amish and the baked goods legendary. Not ready to risk a prime seat for a cookie (even “The Best Cookie in the World”), I opted for a spin around the exhibition. One and a half years in the making, “Reach Ruin” is an abstract meditation on Arsham’s experience during Hurricane Andrew, when, having spent the storm huddled in a reinforced closet, the artist awoke to find his Miami home entirely destroyed around him. (The show’s title is actually an anagram for “hurricane.”)

“It’s eerie how Sandy has given the idea a different kind of relevance,” the artist admitted. “It really originated with Andrew, with wanting to create something from the ruins.” Arsham’s chosen medium here is primarily repurposed glass, which is molded into everything from cameras to picture frames to human figures. In the upstairs gallery, viewers congregated in front of a kind of cave carved into the far wall, where the artist had created a seven-minute simulation of a storm, replete with a wind machine, lightning flashes, and a sound track of sixteen simultaneous orchestras all performing Mozart’s Requiem. As a particularly robust gust died down, art historian John Richardson cracked, “All that’s missing is a pair of legs coming out from the sides.” When I repeated that observation later to Mills Moran and Joel Mesler, both dealers gave polite smiles, but refrained from any further comment. (That is, on the record.)

When we were at last given the signal, we filed down to the seventh floor. The entire gallery was bathed in cerulean light and reconfigured into a wide catwalk, with chairs lining up either side of the wall. I was right to skip that cookie; my seat ended up directly across from Kippy, who was sporting pearls and a purple headscarf with all the casual elegance of someone who knows her accomplishments speak for themselves. She was leaning over curator John Ravenal to talk shop with collector Beth Rudin DeWoody, who was wearing sloganed leggings that vaguely suggested that her stems may have been sponsored.

Left: Beth Rudin DeWoody and dealer Mills Moran. Right: “Study for Occupant.” (Photo: Fabric Workshop and Museum)

As a point of departure, Arsham had provided Bokaer with plaster Leicas, cast in the same mold as the ceramic camera sculptures on view downstairs. The choreographer had scattered the objects at intervals around the floor, which was diagrammed with chalk outlines of what appeared to be overlapping vulvas. Cocked at angles or propped up on their flashbulbs, the cameras took on alien properties. Four female dancers walked out in clinical, all-white uniforms, their hair pulled back in severe buns. As a drone escalated (Bokaer was personally manning the soundboard), the dancers completed a kind of slow . . . calisthenics with the cameras, pressing them against their bodies, then dragging them along the slivered ovals on the floor, leaving a fresh coat of chalky wake that glimmered in the blue light.

“I may need a drink after this,” one dealer whispered to me as the performance came to an end. “All that camera-copulation demands some kind of release.” The piece was followed by a champagne toast in and around the dance floor, though the lighting obscured the features of the revelers. I made out Al Moran, who was chatting convivially with publicist Shayna McClelland and Kyle DeWoody, while in the next clump over I picked out curator Sarah Aibel and her hunky brother Josh, a director of Philadelphia’s Moderne Gallery. I tried to quiz him on the local scene, but it seemed many of the major players had already slipped out and down the street to Vietnam Palace, a two-story behemoth among the myriad pho joints surrounding Reading Street Market. (“It’s sort of a Fabric Workshop tradition,” I was told.) I tagged along behind Chai and Galerie Perrotin’s Rafael Gatel, who was en route to Savannah College of Art and Design. “It’s quite an intriguing tour of America,” he beamed. “Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Savannah . . . ”

“Wait—why don’t we come here more often?” the collector across from me would marvel later, over steaming platters of tofu and pea shoots. The question prompted fervent nods of agreement from my New York crew, though it also served as a reminder that it was time to catch our train back. If only we had a glass slipper to leave behind (or even a plaster camera).